A Specialist In Flying Objects

When he's not launching baseballs into space, Darrell Evans of the Tigers watches for a visiting team
June 01, 1986

Darrell Evans had scarcely pulled his car into the driveway of his house in Pleasanton, Calif. on that June night in 1982 when he saw his wife, LaDonna, beckoning to him agitatedly from the deck above. LaDonna is a vital, enthusiastic woman under the mildest of circumstances, but this salutation had an urgency that, considering his mood and needs of the moment, did not sit at all well with him. Evans had just finished another evening on the bench in frigid Candlestick Park and was looking forward to a restful few moments reclining on the warm, moonlit deck of his hillside home in the suburbs before turning in. Such are the vicissitudes of weather in the San Francisco Bay Area that temperatures may vary as much as 30° in 30 miles. The Stick had been cold. Pleasanton was balmy. LaDonna was definitely overheated.

"You've got to see this," she said in a breathy whisper, urging him toward the very deck he had hoped to occupy in blissful forgetfulness of his apparently declining fortunes with the San Francisco Giants. The team had recently brought up from the minors a 21-year-old youngster, Tom O'Malley, to take his place, Evans had reason to fear, at third base. And the veteran Reggie Smith was playing first, Darrell's other position. Evans, at 35, was stricken with the chilling realization that he, in every sense, was the man left out in the cold. But now his dear wife was gesturing animatedly, saying little, steering him toward...what?

It was an extraordinarily clear night, and the Evans home of that time was situated on a steep hill that commanded a view of the valley below. The house was only a few miles from the municipal airport in Livermore, so the Evanses were accustomed to the sight of small planes flying in the night toward that modest facility. They were equally familiar with airliners thundering overhead on a westward course to the sprawling Oakland and San Francisco airports. Both of them were veteran sky-watchers. LaDonna had been a stewardess before she married Darrell in 1975, and he had been an amateur astronomer since he was 12 years old. But nothing in their years of searching the heavens had prepared them for what they saw hovering noiselessly, perhaps only a hundred feet above the deck of their home.

"It was shaped like a triangle," La-Donna recalls. "The lights were bright and white, not at all like the lights on an aircraft. The fuselage was charcoal gray, kind of opalescent. It looked like steel. The fuselage sloped down to a window-less dome. There was no sound at all. Usually, our dogs, Kelly, the shepherd, and Bridget, the cocker, would react to something like that, but neither of them moved a hair."

"LaDonna wanted me to get a camera, but I said no, I just wanted to watch," says Darrell. "It was so strange. It was as if they wanted us to see them. It was as if they had singled us out. At least, I wanted to think that. I guess I'd always hoped there'd be something like this, something that would come in peace. I think we knew from the start what it was."

"It would be vain of us," says LaDonna, "to think there was no one else in the universe."

The Evanses marveled at this celestial apparition for perhaps 20 minutes, waiting for some message or sign. Evans is not only a student of the stars, he is also a passionate reader of space literature, and not just paperback science fiction. His library, which also includes in its eclectic shelves everything from Tolstoy to Sidney Sheldon, bulges with the works of such as Carl Sagan and Ray Bradbury. He inherited his interest in space from his father, who was a supervising mechanic at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Evans has communicated with J. Allen Hynek (who died April 27), the academician who once headed the Air Force's UFO investigative unit and who coined the expression that Steven Spielberg popularized, "close encounter of the third kind." Evans is by any definition a sensible and intelligent man, a leader in both baseball chapel and Players Association undertakings. He is also happily blessed with what he calls "a sense of wonder." He was so awash with wonder on that June night in '82 that he neglected to capture the UFO with his camera. When he finally decided to get the camera, the visiting craft first moved tentatively forward into the night and then disappeared altogether as Evans futilely ran outside to see it off.

The Evanses confided their experience to only a few close friends. They were, as far as they knew, the only people in their neighborhood to have seen this wonder of the night, not surprising considering that the visitation occurred after midnight, an hour in Pleasanton when only ballplayers returning from night games could be expected to be up and about. They did not go public with their revelation until almost two years later. As pillars of the community, they had no wish to be identified with the dingbat element. "That's not the sort of thing you bring up to people you've just met," says Evans. But there is no question in their minds that what they saw was a spacecraft from elsewhere. They do not joke about it. They do not preface their recollections with giggling disclaimers on the order of "You'll probably think we're crazy, and I don't blame you, but...." No, they saw what they saw. They know it. And that's that. "We have used that experience to gain perspective," says Darrell of a commodity notably lacking in the game of baseball.

It would be frivolous, of course, to suggest that somebody up there likes him, but the fact remains that after the UFO dropped by his house, things looked up for Darrell Evans. He finished out the year, in which he didn't expect to play much, by appearing in 141 games and improving his sagging batting average to .256, while the Giants, who were floundering in June, recovered to contend for the division title right up to the last two days of the season. In 1983 Evans had his best season in a decade, hitting 30 homers. He then became a free agent and that December signed a three-year, $2.25 million contract with the Detroit Tigers, who promptly won the World Series, the first Evans had ever played in. Last year, at 38, he became the oldest player to lead the American League in home runs, with 40, and the first Tiger to do so in 39 years. He also became the first player to hit 40 or more homers in both leagues (he hit 41 for Atlanta in 1973). He has settled LaDonna and their three children—Stacy, 8, Nick, 5, and Chad, nine months (his oldest son, Derek, 15, lives with his mother, Evans's first wife, in Southern California)—in a spacious Colonial-style mansion alongside a golf course in ritzy Grosse Pointe Farms, a neighborhood also inhabited by folks named Goodyear, Stroh and Ford.

Yes, the years since that heavenly visitation have been kind to him. They have also been cruel. Evans has had to employ all the perspective at his command to ward off the outrageous slings and arrows that have come his way these past four years. He became a free agent after the '83 season because the Giants didn't want him. They further advised him that, despite his 30 dingers, no one else was much interested in old infielders. Evans was beginning to believe them when, vacationing at Lake Tahoe, he received a phone call from his agent, Jerry Kapstein. "Get a pencil," Kapstein instructed him. "Then," says Evans, "he started reading off the names. It was incredible. Eighteen teams drafted me!" He finally signed with the Tigers 1) because they were a contender, 2) because the right-field fence at Tiger Stadium was conveniently situated for lefthanded hitters and 3) because the team seemed unsettled at first and third, his positions. Besides, Detroit manager Sparky Anderson had called Evans personally to tell him how much he wanted him. Sometime between that call and Opening Day, Sparky must have grown disenchanted with his newest Tiger, for he used him in only 131 games, 62 of them at the amorphous and, for Evans, unfamiliar position of designated hitter. Evans was versatile enough to have filled in at shortstop for the Giants, so sitting around took some getting used to.

Evans hit only .232 with 16 homers in just 401 at bats that season, but the World Series championship made it all worthwhile. It had taken him 16 years to make it to the top, and he was grateful. He was a memorable sight in the victorious clubhouse after the fifth and final game, the eye of the hurricane, standing apart, quietly sipping champagne, with tears in his eyes. "I don't know whether you become a family before an experience like that or afterward," he says now, "but I do know these men are my family and I'll never forget them. The memories will go on forever."

Still, he got no respect. In an interview last year for an airline magazine, his team's owner, pizza mogul Thomas Monaghan, complained about the high price of free agents, singling out Evans as the quintessential overpaid geezer keeping worthier young players on the sidelines. The young player he specifically had in mind was 25-year-old Mike Laga, who, shades of O'Malley, was brought up from Nashville on May 14, 1985 to take Evans's first base job away from him. On May 15 Evans, who had been hitting. 167 with just two homers and four RBIs, hit a home run. He hit another the next day and another the day after that and another the day after that. Laga was returned to Nashville on June 2. "I tell Mike he's the best hitting coach I know," says Evans. "Every time I see him I get inspired."

Laga came back to haunt Evans again this year. In spring training, Anderson announced that Laga would be on first and that Evans, who played 113 of his 151 games there last year, would henceforth be merely the designated hitter against righthanded pitching. Evans was thunderstruck. "Why?" he cried. "How can you hit 40 home runs and then be taken out of the lineup?" Good question. And Anderson, indignant that anyone should dare inquire, answered: "Mike Laga is 26 years old [in June]. We have to find out whether he can play. If he can, we've got a guy who'll be around for 10 years. Now here you've got a 26-year-old person and a 39-year-old person. Who do you think will have the longer career? And it would be silly on my part to make a DH out of a 26-year-old. My goal is to stay in Detroit as long as I can, and I'm going to pick the people who'll keep me here."

As it turns out, Sparky has not been as good as his word. In the Tigers' first 40 games, Evans started in 38, 18 as a first baseman and 11 against lefthanders. Laga, who is now on the 21-day disabled list with a fractured right wrist, was again a source of inspiration for Evans. On Tuesday, April 29, Laga's seventh-inning homer won the game for Detroit against the righthanded Dennis Leonard of Kansas City. The next night, Evans, playing in Laga's stead at first against the left-handed Charlie Leibrandt, hit what should have been a game-winning homer in the eighth, but the Tiger bullpen couldn't protect the lead in the ninth, and Detroit lost 7-3. Since then, Evans has hit four home runs and driven in 12 runs, so he now has nine homers, 20 runs batted in and a .235 average. It's just a coincidence, but there has been a spate of UFO sightings recently.

So Darrell Evans, as usual, holds the fort against ever-increasing odds. He is on the last year of his contract and has no idea what the future offers. Next season, he will turn 40. But he doesn't mind being an underdog.

He first signed with the then Kansas City A's in 1967, fresh from the campus of Pasadena City College. Sal Bando was a step ahead of him on Charlie Finley's ladder, and to complicate matters, Evans hurt his right arm in his first full season, 1968, trying to come back too soon after six months in the Marine Corps reserve. The Braves drafted him off the A's roster the following year. The third baseman ahead of him in Atlanta at the time was Clete Boyer, generally regarded as one of the finest fielders ever to play the position. Evans didn't make it to the big club for good until late in the '69 season, then sat on the bench as the Mets eliminated his team in the playoffs. It was about this time that he acquired the nickname he retains into early middle age—Doody. Indeed, Evans yet bears an unsettling resemblance to Buffalo Bob Smith's lemonwood companion, Howdy Doody.

By '71 Evans had taken the job from Boyer, and soon he showed his power. In '73, he hit 41 homers, thereby joining a historic trio. He and Davey Johnson (43 homers) and Hank Aaron (40) became the only three teammates in major league history to hit 40 or more home runs in a single season. Aaron thought Evans should hit 35 every year, but Darrell has done it only one other time. In '76, he was batting only .173 when the Braves traded him in June to San Francisco and the ignominy of back-in-the-standings finishes. But Evans gave it his best shot, and he was the team captain until spoilsport manager Frank Robinson took the job away from him in '81, growling that he didn't believe in team captains. Evans can take it. "He's a pro," says Dave Bergman, his teammate both in San Francisco and in Detroit. "On a scale of one to 10, Darrell is a 10, both as a player and a person."

Evans could scarcely escape being an athlete while growing up in Altadena, a town that, as its name suggests, looks down on Pasadena. His father, Richard, had been an AAU basketball player and his mother, Eleanor, a professional softball player. His uncle Bob played minor league baseball, and so did his maternal grandfather, Dave Salazar. "He was a pitcher, and from what I hear, a good one," says Evans of his grandfather, "but he was also a Mexican, and I guess the color line was drawn for him, too, because he never got to the big leagues." Evans's father gloried in the technical side of baseball. "His favorite book must have been So You Think You Know Baseball, and he went over every conceivable situation in that book with me. He never wanted me to be surprised by anything that ever happened on the field."

His dad also helped him to become a wonderer. "My dad loved to read, and so do I. I'd read the encyclopedia by the hour. I used to wonder what it must've been like for Columbus and Magellan sailing across a world they were told was flat. Can you imagine what courage that took? The human spirit is absolutely amazing. Now the only frontiers left are the oceans and space. And so I wonder about them."

He was drawn to space not by watching Star Trek, but by his father, whose occupation it was. "He taught by arguing," says Evans of his dad. "He'd take a side just to show that everything has two sides, that there are no absolutes, no pure black and whites. When you asked him a question, you had to be prepared, because he'd want to know why you were asking the question. He never treated me as a kid at all. The other thing my father did was listen to other people. I could see that when people walked away after a conversation with him they were always happier than they'd been before."

Evans took his father and mother to the 1983 All-Star Game, in which he played. "It was the game's 50th anniversary, and my dad came down to the clubhouse and got to meet all the Hall of Famers who were there," he says. "I knew he'd dreamed the same dreams I had, and now he was living them. I was just glad I was able to give him something like that." Richard Evans died of cancer in the middle of the Tigers' triumphant '84 season. One dream had been denied him: He never saw his son in a playoff or in a World Series. Or did he?

Hear LaDonna Evans: "We were in Kansas City for the second game of the playoffs in '84. Now Pops, Darrell's dad, had always liked to sit in the first row of the box seats right on the aisle just to the left of home plate so he could see how Darrell was being pitched. We weren't too far from that seat. Darrell's mom was on one side of me and his brother, Michael (now 33), was on the other. Well, for some reason, I looked over to where Pops would have been sitting and I saw something really strange. Standing there at the seat, with his back to us, was a tall man—Darrell's dad was 6'4"—wearing exactly the same kind of cardigan sweater Pops had always worn. I about dropped. I could have sworn it was him. I told Michael to take a look, and he said the same thing. Neither of us dared say anything to Darrell's mom, because it hadn't been that long. And we didn't ever go down there and look that man in the face. It was too crazy, too weird. After that, we got so involved in the game, we didn't think much more about it. It was a great game [won by the Tigers 5-3 in 11 innings]. But when it was over, we looked back to that seat. There was no one there. The man had vanished. How could anyone have left a game like that early? I don't know.... Really, we're sensible, religious people, not crazy at all. Maybe, though, we're just susceptible, really open to some things. I just don't know...."

PHOTOATTILA HEJJAThis is an artist's rendering of what the Evanses saw on that June night in 1982. PHOTOTONY TOMSIC[See caption above.] PHOTOTONY TOMSICEvans hit 40 homers last year, at age 38, to become the oldest player ever to lead the AL.
PHOTOBILL SMITHSliding into the Angels' Bob Boone, Evans showed he could still kick up some dust. PHOTOTONY TRIOLOAaron (above left), Johnson and Evans were a historic trio for the Braves: They each hit 40 or more home runs in 1973. TWO PHOTOSFRED KAPLAN[See caption above.] PHOTOTONY TOMSICThe Evanses (Nick, Stacy, Chad, Dad and Mom) rely on more earthly transportation. PHOTOC.W. (BUD) SKINNERRichard Evans, Darrell's father, favored cardigan sweaters.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)